I love to read, sometimes at my own peril. I may start reading a book that looked good by the cover, then quickly into it realize it was not at all what I had hoped it would be. Rather than set it aside and move on, usually I have to finish it just to make sure I was not judging it too harshly or otherwise was unfair to the author, publisher, book seller, and anyone else affected by the book's sale.
The exception to this pattern in me has been sermon collections. I have long been a student of history, so am well aware of the importance of reading original documents in order to understand people and events. So fairly regularly I have tried to read collections of sermons from different eras, traditions, and individuals in order to better understand those times and peoples. Inevitably I soon surrender the attempt, particularly if they are sermons more than a hundred years old, as the style of writing seems so foreign with its flowery constructions and convoluted sentences.
Listening to National Public Radio recently I was reminded of Henry Fowler, who is the parent of modern English writing. He published A Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926 and it remains both in print and in use today. It influenced mightily all the writing guides that followed, including The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style, both of which are more accessible than Fowler's seven hundred page work.
Certainly the movement in English writing was already moving towards greater simplicity from the Victorian grand style, but Fowler codified it in a way that was powerful and lasting. So preachers who in the past may have drawn on the long and complex sermons of their elders for examples were now learning from an early age that simple writing with straightforward constructions was the way to communicate clearly. Other media undoubtedly influenced this movement, as radio was becoming more common in homes, with its demands of short programs that could sell products to the listeners, so that congregations' ears became dull after a dozen or so minutes of a sermon in contrast to the multiple hour sermons of centuries past.
So perhaps Fowler merely was the first to write down what people were experiencing in their everyday language, of a desire for keeping sentences short and sweet, with few adjectives and fewer adverbs. But I am still struck by the image of Fowler's life at the time of his writing his works on how to write and speak. He was living in a one room cottage that was part of his brother's tomato farm, located on an island off the coast of England. I wonder if he was more of an extravert, if he was a person of the city rather than of a solitary existence, he would have advocated more elaborate forms of expression. Even if the tomato plants did not appreciate adverbs perhaps English speakers could have stayed conversant with our own literary past, with the sermons that moved thousands as they patiently took in the elaborate sentences, if Fowler had been more comfortable with more words being used. Or maybe Fowler, a dedicated atheist, did a massive favor to the church by helping preachers learn to be conversant in contemporary language, in the way people were and are talking now.
Even pondering this evaluation of our language does not really motivate me to dive back into those old sermon collections, yet I am reminded of the need for our Sunday preaching to be connected with the Monday through Saturday ways in which people talk about the everyday events of their lives. Part of our goal in preaching is to help everyone see God in those everyday occurrences, the ways in which God loves us and moves through our lives constantly-sometimes in simple ways, sometimes in ways that do require an extra adjective or adverb to communicate God's generous love and caring for each one of us. And of course this articulation does not apply merely to preaching, but to all of us as we try to make sense of our lives, and thereby become more faithful and loving Christians.